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Tribeca ’09 Interview: “Playground” Director Libby Spears (Discovery Section)

Tribeca '09 Interview: "Playground" Director Libby Spears (Discovery Section)

Editor’s Note: This is one of dozens of interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival in the narrative and doc competitions as well as the Discovery section. The festival takes place April 22 – May 3.

(Discovery, World Premiere)
Director: Libby Spears
Original Artwork: Yoshitomo Nara
Executive Producers: Grant Heslov, George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh, Abigail Disney, Gayle Embrey, Lauren Embrey
Associate Producer: Julia Ormond
Feature Documentary, 2008, 85 min., U.S.

Synopsis: Sexual exploitation of children is a problem that we tend to relegate to back-alley brothels in developing countries, the province of a particularly inhuman, and invariably foreign, criminal element. Such is the initial premise of Libby Spears’ sensitive investigation into the topic. But she quickly concludes that very little thrives on this planet without American capital, and the commercial child sex industry is certainly thriving. Spears intelligently traces the epidemic to its disparate, and decidedly domestic, roots—among them the way children are educated about sex, and the problem of raising awareness about a crime that inherently cannot be shown. Her cultural observations are couched in an ongoing mystery story: the search for Michelle, an everyday American girl lost to the underbelly of childhood sexual exploitation who has yet to resurface a decade later. [Synopsis courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival]

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

The novelty of working the craft service table started to wear off.

What prompted the idea for your film?

While working on another documentary in the Philippines in 2001, I first encountered women who, during WWII, had been enslaved to serve as Comfort Women – a “supply” the Japanese Army literally requisitioned like food or weapons – who were forced to provide sex for Japanese military men. It was appalling hear the abuse these women were subjected to, and even more so that so few people are even aware that this happened to over 300,000 women and children during the war.

Over several years, I went back to other parts of Southeast Asia, mostly around military bases to investigate current cases of minors being trafficked for sex. There was no shortage of material, but I had underestimated the personal risks in attempting to expose these issues and the institutions involved.

I returned to the United States, and met with Ernie Allen, the founder of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, to find out about children being trafficked into the states from other countries. He informed that he couldn’t think of any particular case, but he knew 300,000 of American children that were trafficked across state lines.

Once I discovered how prevalent the problem was in our own country, that rejected the premise of less developed countries, where we assume this is another bi-product of poverty. That’s when I decided to focus on the commercial aspects of the child sex industry in the developed world.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

Fundraising and access. I thought raising money and finding people to contribute to a film that could humanize such an inhuman topic that involve children would be much easier than it was. In fact, it was very much the opposite. Most of the time, people would wish me ‘good luck’ and keep their checkbooks in their pockets. Access is always an issue when you are dealing with minors and even more so when you are exploring the topic of sexual abuse.

How do you define success as a filmmaker?

Success as a documentarian is completing the film, and finding its audience.

What are your future projects?


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